Astronaut Scott Carpenter, fourth American in space, dies at 88

DENVER (Reuters) - Astronaut Scott
Carpenter, who in 1962 became the fourth
American in space and the second to orbit
the Earth, died on Thursday in Colorado at
age 88 of complications from a stroke, his
wife Patty Carpenter said.
Carpenter, who lost radio contact with NASA
controllers during his pioneering space flight
and was found in the ocean 250 miles from
the targeted splashdown site, went on to
explore the ocean floor in later years. His
wife said he died in a Denver hospice.
The National Aeronautics and Space
Administration chose Carpenter and six other
pilots to be astronauts in 1959 for the
Mercury space program as the United States
entered its space race with the Soviet Union.
The only surviving member of that Mercury 7
team is John Glenn, 92, now a retired U.S.
Senator from Ohio. In 1962, Glenn became
the first American to orbit the earth, and
Carpenter was his backup on that mission.
Later that year, Carpenter made his only
spaceflight, taking the Aurora 7 spacecraft on
three laps around Earth on May 24, a few
weeks after his 37th birthday. The flight of
less than five hours made him the second
American to orbit Earth, and the experience
stayed with him until the end of his life.
"I still remember what a thrill it was being
up there - I liked the feeling of
weightlessness, and the view I had of Earth,"
Carpenter told the University of Colorado's
alumni magazine last year.
The other Mercury astronauts had piloted
fighter jets during the Korean War, but
Carpenter mostly flew surveillance in multi-
engine propeller planes.
"Scott was the only one with a touch of the
poet about him in the sense that the idea of
going into space stirred his imagination,"
Tom Wolfe wrote in "The Right Stuff," his
best-selling book about the first astronauts.
A former gymnast known among colleagues
for his fitness, Carpenter trained as Glenn's
backup for NASA's first orbital flight. When
Glenn blasted off on the Friendship 7 mission
on February 20, 1962, Carpenter sent him off
with a simple yet poignant radio
transmission: "Godspeed, John Glenn."
Despite his fame as an astronaut, Carpenter
spent considerably more time on the ocean
floor than he did in outer space. In 1965, the
astronaut became an aquanaut as part of the
Navy's SEALAB II project, spending 30 days
living and working at a depth of 204 feet off
the California coast.
Born in Boulder, Colorado, he split his time
between Vail, Colorado, and West Palm
Beach, Florida, Patty Carpenter said. His
given name was Malcolm Scott Carpenter but
he used Scott as a first name.
DRAMATIC RE-ENTRY
Carpenter's space flight ran into problems
upon re-entry to Earth's atmosphere, raising
questions about whether he would make it
back alive. His spacecraft had used too much
fuel after he forgot to shut off one of the
fuel systems.
After Carpenter fired the retrorockets to
power his return, NASA controllers lost radio
contact and feared a tragedy.
Aerial search teams eventually spotted
Carpenter and the bobbing Mercury capsule -
doing fine despite having ended up about
250 miles off the splashdown target in the
Atlantic.
When President John F. Kennedy called to
congratulate him, Carpenter offered his
"apologies for not having aimed a little
better on re-entry."
Suzanne Schirra, daughter of fellow Mercury
astronaut Wally Schirra, who died in 2007,
paid tribute on Thursday to the qualities
shared by Carpenter and his colleagues on
the program.
"I've never met anyone who came close to
having the strength of character, devotion to
country, zest for adventure or joy for life than
those seven men," she said.
Carpenter became the first American to eat
solid food in space, a breakthrough since
scientists were not sure how the digestive
process would work in zero gravity. He dined
on chocolate, figs, dates and cereal that had
been compressed into cubes. He told mission
control it tasted fine but left crumbs floating
throughout his space capsule.
Since so little was known about spaceflight
at the time, Carpenter's mission included
relatively simple jobs such as releasing signal
balloons, photographing clouds and observing
flares fired from Earth.
He discovered that what Glenn had described
as looking like "fireflies" around the capsule
actually were illuminated ice particles formed
by water vapor being vented into space.
"The most important driver in everything we
did then was curiosity," Carpenter told the
Orange County Register in 2009. "It's
revelatory. Addictive. Beautiful beyond
description. To have been in space is very
satisfying of one's curiosity. It's instructive.
It's marvelous."
LIFE UNDER THE SEA
The sea also piqued Carpenter's curiosity. He
was an experienced diver and during his time
in SEALAB, part of the Navy's underwater
habitat program, he helped test tools,
salvage methods and use of a dolphin to
transport supplies from the surface to the
lab.
"The sea is a more hostile environment than
space," Carpenter told Time magazine after
his SEALAB experience.
Carpenter badly injured his left arm in a 1964
motorcycle accident, leaving the limb with
limited range, which ruled him out of future
spaceflights.
He returned to NASA two years after his
SEALAB mission and helped design the Apollo
program's lunar module that landed on the
moon in 1969. He retired from NASA in 1967
and left the Navy in 1969.
Carpenter's love of the ocean led to work
with renowned French oceanographer Jacques
Cousteau, whom Carpenter considered a
hero. He also wrote two novels described as
"underwater techno-thrillers."
Carpenter was married four times and had
seven children, according to "For Spacious
Skies," the autobiography he wrote with his
daughter, Kris Stoever.